Wayne Booth (1921-2005) was a long-serving professor of English Literature at the University of Chicago, and through his landmark work, The Rhetoric of Fiction, he helped establish the basis for rhetorical literary criticism. He wrote many other books, but my favorite is For the Love of It: Amateuring & Its Rivals (University of Chicago Press, 1999). This is the book I am most likely to give as a graduation present. It speaks to me like no other book I’ve ever encountered. To understand why, I have to reveal a bit about myself. I am truly happy when I am engaged in learning something new. This had been a truth about me ever since I was a child. As a result, I have had many interests over the years. I once made a list of my various engagements ( my wife calls them, not altogether inaccurately, “obsessions”) for my daughter a few years ago. It was over a page and half long, single spaced! There were probably many more that I explored, but that failed to grab my attention. Once I am fully committed to a project, I will follow it through for anywhere from three to five years. Then, it is time to look for the next new thing. I even picked a profession that is so broad I can focus on many different topics in depth, and still be within the mainstream of the discipline. I have one life-long passion, cooking and baking, and even here my interests wax and wane across the world’s cuisines and various cooking techniques over time, as evidenced by the bookshelves groaning with cookbooks bought in the pre-internet days. My projects have involved book learning, sport and fitness, listening to different forms of music, crafting, and writing. You might say I am accommodating to an attention deficit condition, as I flit from project to project. You might ask what I have to show for all this manic learning? Could all that energy and drive not have been focused on becoming a true expert in at least one of these interests? When guest remark on the quality of the food I serve by suggesting I should open a restaurant, I am truly perplexed. Why would I do that? It would take all the fun out of cooking.
Into this storm of self doubt, Wayne Booth provides me with both the apology and the direction for my manias: the importance of doing something for love, rather than gain. As he tells it, he had the good fortune to marry a woman who was a professional violinist. From time to time, handsome young men would appear at their front door with instrument cases under their arms, and whisk his wife away to an evening of quartet or ensemble playing. So, to have an excuse to tag along, he took up the cello at the age of 31. No one takes up the cello at that age! The fingers will never be nimble enough. No matter how much you practice, you can not compete professionally with people who began playing the instrument as children. He persisted initially because he wanted to fully participate in the life his wife was leading. But soon he was playing for the love of it. He discovered fellow students, teachers, workshops, summer camps, and performance opportunities that were geared to adult musicians with his skill level. Pursuing his instrument ushered him into situations that he characterises as among the most meaningful individual experiences of his life.
But why do this? Booth says that if anything is worth doing (emphasis on the ‘worth’), it is worth doing badly! It’s not an original quote. That just means he was not the first to try to describe the value-added of amateuring: joyful friendship, ecstatic transport beyond oneself, and gratitude for life’s unearned gifts! If that strikes you somewhat overwrought, then you don’t know what you are missing!
Amateuring is the antidote to a neoliberal work ethic, a world that demands that we pursue gain, that we plan our time to best advantage, that we develop our acquaintances strategically, and that we practice the nimble arts of opportunity seizing. Amateuring accomplishes none of these. It is useless. That is its greatest virtue. It has nothing to do with killing time or escaping from boredom. Because it often involves rigorous, demanding technique that can never be completely mastered, the pursuit of the thing suspends the linear flow of time. Playing the instrument, painting the canvas, knitting the sweater, constructing the dish take us nowhere. We are materially no better off than when we started. In fact, it may even have cost us money.
In the spirit of this season of graduation speeches, I recommend the possibilities of amateuring as a life goal to young people. Even if they flit from activity to activity, as I did, as long as they are moving forward in the pursuit of the ‘useless,’ they will be happier people.